Could France, the world’s nuclear leader, be considering a transition away from nukes? Judging from a few recent pieces of news coming out of the country, it’s a distinct possibility.
Earlier this month, the French Parliament voted to ban fracking, a controversial drilling method that has enabled a global boom in natural gas. Now, the country is turning its attention to offshore wind – opening up a bidding program for five marine zones that could host up to 3 GW of projects. The first round of bidding is part of an effort to build 6 GW of projects from 2015 through 2020.
These two developments come as officials in the country are openly considering a long-term energy plan that would phase out nuclear power over the coming decades. Considering that France gets around 75% of its electricity from nuclear – the highest penetration in the world – this announcement, as reported by Reuters, is significant:
Energy Minister Eric Besson announced on radio Europe 1 the launch of a study on Friday on the country’s energy mix by 2050, with options including a complete exit from nuclear production, a cut in the share of nuclear to 50 percent and a progressive reduction of total electricity production in France.
“We will study all possible scenarios for what we call the energy mix,” he said. “It will be done with total objectivity, in full transparency, without avoiding any scenario (…) including the scenarios of a nuclear exit.”
An energy ministry official told Reuters one scenario would consider a total exit from nuclear by 2050, or even 2040.
Of course, a theoretical “study” doesn’t tell us how France will act in reality. But French officials say the country’s focus on nuclear will be around safety enhancements of the existing fleet – not on building new plants – while the focus on renewables will be rapid deployment of new projects. France has a target of procuring 23% of its energy from renewables by 2020, with 18 GW coming from onshore wind, and 6 GW coming from offshore.
Some in France have criticized offshore wind, which they say is too expensive compared with nuclear. But a recent report from a leading European trade association shows that program like France’s could help drop the cost of offshore wind by up to 30% to around 16 US cents/kWh.
We know the costs of offshore wind are too high. The industry is committed to driving down the cost of offshore wind energy. We can reduce costs by as much as a third over the next decade. But this will need a large enough market to promote competition and drive innovation. Working with the government we can deliver 20GW by 2020 if costs fall.
The whole-life cost of energy from UK offshore wind projects is expected to be driven down by more than 15% in real terms between 2011 and 2022, under normal market conditions. Under favorable conditions, such as increased competition, lower exchange rates and stable commodity prices, the decrease in costs would be as much as 33%.
The next step in France’s long-term energy plan will depend on the country’s experience developing 5.4 GW of solar PV, 24 GW of wind and installing 5 million solar hot water systems on residential buildings around the country. And if neighboring Germany is successful in phasing out its nuclear fleet, perhaps the country with the world’s highest penetration of nuclear will be consider moving away from the technology as well.
The likelihood is low, but it’s an interesting bit of news nonetheless.